FUNNY, when Ella Fitzgerald received her honorary degree at Harvard last June, no one mentioned that she got her start at Yale. Even before she was called forward in her red velvet academic robes, a few young voices chanted ``El-la! El-la!'' Must have been the first time a Harvard honoree was cheered in advance on a first-name basis. Ella was younger than these new graduates, a teenage veteran of Harlem amateur nights, when superdrummer Chick Webb let her try out with his band one night in New Haven. Since they loved her at Yale, the story goes, Webb hired her as a regular singer. That was 55 years ago.
Now Harvard proclaimed to its latest Doctor of Music: ``In your matchless voice we hear America singing its wondrous songs of work and play, sadness and beauty, winning and losing. You fill our silences and touch our hearts.''
I missed Ella singing for her fellow dignitaries at lunch that day. Caught her later in the month at New York's Avery Fisher Hall. Her concert, ``Ella! The First Lady of Song,'' was the hottest ticket - and the highest-priced - in an 11-day JVC Jazz Festival studded with stars ranging from elders Dizzy Gillespie and Mel Torm'e to young Wynton Marsalis and Mulgrew Miller. The sellout crowd was applauding, shouting, loving her just as much as those bygone Yalies and all the audiences since.
If there can be a jewel within a jewel, this concert had one in the interlude with Ella and guitarist Joe Pass alone onstage. Jazz at its most transparent and affectionate - musical dialogue, conversation, repartee, two people having fun and sharing it.
Here was the elegant Ella, singing ``You're Blas'e'' (``You're deep just like a chasm, you've no enthusiasm'') from a forgotten British musical of 1931 - the Ella shot by glamor photographer Annie Leibovitz for that series of American Express ads picturing people who need no introduction. Here was the down-to-earth Ella, pausing a moment, taking us into her confidence to explain that her nose was dripping.
Soon her piano-bass-and-drums trio was back. All too soon they and Ella and Joe Pass were swinging into their closing numbers. Then came the quiet shock that works every time. It's ``Take the A Train,'' not in the four-beat Duke Ellington groove but as a lilting waltz that develops its own swinging momentum.
Later I phoned John Lewis, Ella's accompanist for a while in the '50s, who has won fame as pianist and composer on his own and with the Modern Jazz Quartet. The MJQ was just back from Europe where it extended its own summer tour to help substitute for Ella, who had to cut her tour short when she was briefly hospitalized. (She was back home in Beverly Hills in July, looking fine and planning to fill future concert dates, said her Los Angeles office.)
Mr. Lewis said it had been ``wonderful working for her.'' He had just heard a tape of a live performance by her with the Count Basie band. She was ``so inventive with improvisation, and it was real improvisation, not prepared.'' He defined Ella as ``the greatest jazz singer.''
The people around us at the New York concert didn't seem to disagree. Somewhere in the midst of everything, like a perfectly timed throwaway line, the words ``A-Tisket, A-Tasket'' burst through. The crowd laughed its recognition. That's the title of Ella's first big hit record with the Chick Webb band in 1938. It's been said that she wrote the nonsense lyrics from a childhood rhyme when Webb was in the hospital and she was trying to think of how to cheer him up when he got out.
Was the charming song-writing story true? I asked Phoebe Jacobs, a friend of Ella's since the '50s and a familiar figure backstage at many of her concerts. Ms. Jacobs said she had never heard that particular story, ``but it sounds just like her.'' She went on about Ella's thoughtfulness, generosity, ``caring about people,'' and lack of celebrity pretensions.
``She seems so surprised - like a child - when people give her a standing ovation before she sings a note,'' said Jacobs. She told of a typical episode a summer ago. Ella - who has been battling a number of physical problems in recent years - seemed totally exhausted after a concert with the San Francisco Symphony:
``There was a long line of people waiting for autographs, and I started to suggest to them that it was really getting late - but Ella crooked her finger and called me aside. She said, `As long as they want my autograph, I'm going to give it to them - because they made me.'''
I thought of one hot summer afternoon at a Newport Jazz Festival when I happened to be standing right where a perspiring Ella came down the steps from the stage after a rapturous ovation. She was all business, listening, getting ready to take another bow if necessary, but also gracious to our little knot of well-wishers. I think that, in one of her numbers, she had quoted the melody of ``Smoke Gets in Your Eyes'' with her deromanticizing words ``Sweat Gets in My Eyes.'' But I may be remembering a record.
And what a glorious stream of records over more than half a century. Bland pop tunes from time to time. Misguided novelties. But overwhelming them are the classic collections of songs by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Duke Ellington; the duets with Louis Armstrong; the big band sides with Count Basie; the pell-mell scatting, bopping versions of ``Flyin' Home,'' ``Oh, Lady Be Good,'' and ``How High the Moon''; the romps and the romance with her own trio.
The words of the songs are irrelevant, said one critic, perhaps intending it as a compliment to her sheer musicality. Another called a Fitzgerald performance emotionless. In recent years her voice has been heard by some as harsh, straining, even a bit off pitch.
But the words and emotion are really inseparable from the melody and rhythm Ella manipulates with such effortless art. Perhaps in the Chick Webb records of the '30s the clarity of the words in that light, breezy, young woman's voice is not accompanied by the full weight and emotion of their meaning. The songs all tend to roll along with fetching good nature.
But soon Ella displays intensified depth and shading. By the time of her 40th birthday concert in Rome in 1958 - the marvelous recording of which didn't surface until three decades later - it's hard to imagine anyone bringing more to the climax of ``Angel Eyes'' than when her commanding ``Excuse me!'' is followed by a ``while I disappear'' that fades to a crystalline thread of sound and sorrow.
In roaring contrast, ``Ella & Duke at The C^ote D'Azure'' presents her and her trio and the Duke Ellington Orchestra taking a song from ``The Threepenny Opera'' by Germans Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht - ``Mack the Knife'' - and turning it into a pulsing, riffing jazz arrangement. Invented on the spot, says the producer, just the way it sounds.
What does Ella do besides sing, give autographs, travel all over the world, make recordings, and win awards?
Says friend Phoebe Jacobs: ``She's up early in the morning, and she's going all the time. She's involved. She's interested in what's going on.'' Then Jacobs tells how Ella ``adores children'' and supports children's day care in Los Angeles where she lives. A day-care center has been named after her. She did her own rap song for children at a picnic. She works on behalf of various health charities. She relaxes with soap operas, baseball, music of all kinds - ``she loves opera and ballet.''
What about an insider's comment on moments of music such as those in the New York concert with Joe Pass? Are they like those heard by John Lewis on the Basie band record, as spontaneous and improvised as they seem? Or is it just superb showmanship to make them seem so?
Of course the musicians usually have a rough idea of what they're going to play before they go on, said Jacobs. But they have such confidence in each other, such trust, that each of them can try something new, challenge the other, knowing they have the experience, compatibility, and musical resources to bring it off.
``I may surprise her by changing keys, even two or three times,'' Pass has said, ``but she'll be right on it, never missing.''
It's like that quality of play that some philosophers have found enhancing the most serious work or art or science. With Ella, there's one thing more. Ms. Jacobs noted that there are singers who are like the leader of the band; for example, Frank Sinatra, the chairman of the board. Other singers are like members of the band, like another saxophone or trumpet, and that's how Ella - not to mention many a jazz critic - sees her role.
Suddenly I thought of an old photo of Chick Webb at Harlem's fabled Savoy Ballroom. I found it in a book and, yes, there's Ella singing in the band, standing like a horn player behind the sax section.
Then I thought of what piano virtuoso Oscar Peterson wrote a couple of years ago in a poem about ``what Ella Fitzgerald means'': To ride with the wind or grow like a leaf To sing with a voice quite beyond belief.
I got out my old ``Encyclopedia of Jazz'' to see what used to be said about Ella Fitzgerald. It seems her first recording, June 12, 1935, was called ``Are You Here to Stay?''